Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1920s

A few weeks ago, I said the 1910s contained the most significant leap forward of any decade in movie history, but it’s worth noting that the most visible change occurred during the 1920s . . . well, actually, the most audible. As Donald Crafton says in The Talkies:

Silent and Sound cinema. Few demarcations are so sharply drawn, so elegantly opposed, so pristinely binary. In the movies, sound is either off or on. Everyday conversation, reference books, shelving in video stores, college film courses and their textbooks, film rental catalogs, and festivals are organized around this fundamental rift in the history of the medium. […] Sound divides the movies with the assuredness of biblical duality.

So, that obviously happened, and although Crafton goes on to question those assumptions, there’s no denying that the shift is a dramatic one for the casual viewer. But that’s late in the decade . . . The 1920s were essentially a silent decade, though not like the 1910s. The films of the 1920s have a fully-developed cinematic language. They are complex and sophisticated compared to the films of the previous decade, and even (in some cases) several later decades. The cinema of the ’20s is a full-fledged art form, not a developing one.

Now, while I could get away with discussing a mere 10 films as though they were an adequate cross-section of the 1910s, I can’t pretend that’s the case in the 1920s. What I observed in the films that I watched was a particular flair for the exotic and a penchant for spectacle. I saw fantastical flights of imagination and a fascination with foreign lands and cultures. I saw productions that required significant resources, with enormous sets, elaborate costumes, large casts, and intricate set-pieces. I saw surprisingly elegant camera work of a sort that all but disappeared for some time after the talkies arrived and temporarily confined the camera inside a stationary sound-proof box.

In short, it pained me to realize how unfamiliar I am with what is clearly one of the most dynamic decades in film history, and I will certainly be looking to remedy that situation as soon as my journey to the present is complete. Meanwhile, here are some more specific details about the films that I watched:

The Golem (1920)

This is a slice of ( early German horror, and no one did it better than they during this period. But the eeriest thing about watching this film today is that it is a Weimar retelling of the centuries-old legend of the Golem of Prague, a monstrous creature brought to life by a Rabbi to save the Jews from persecution. Paul Wegener wrote, directed, and played the title character. Wegener was not Jewish, and during the Nazi regime he appeared in propaganda films as an actor of the state, but secretly he worked against them. Considering his fascination with the golem (this was his third golem film), you’d think the Nazis could have seen that coming. Anyway, off-topic. The point is, it’s hard to watch a German film from 1920 that begins with someone seeing “grave danger to the Jewish people” written in the stars and not think ahead.

The Sheik (1921)

Cleverly labeled “The Shriek” by a snarky critic, this film launched Rudolph Valentino, the French-Italian “Latin Lover,” into the stratosphere of stardom, provoking a fanaticism in men and women that roughly parallels the contemporary response to the Twilight novels and movies. And, like TwilightThe Sheik is about an incredibly creepy “romantic” relationship. In this case, the titular desert chieftain, Ahmed, falls for a plucky Englishwoman, Diana, and kidnaps her when she has the audacity to set out across the desert without a European male to escort her. The remainder of the film consists of Ahmed systematically breaking Diana’s unladylike independent spirit until she realizes that she’s actually in love with him. But (unlike in the original novel, penned by a woman) at least he doesn’t rape her.

Nanook of the North (1922)

Regarded as the first feature-length documentary, this comes from a time when that designation meant something else. Sort of. We tend to regard non-fiction films as depictions of actual events and realities, even though we know that they are edited and manufactured in a way that imposes the filmmaker’s narrative upon us. Robert J. Flaherty felt that reality needed a bit more help. He wanted to capture traditional Eskimo family life, and he did, with riveting accuracy. Except that he staged all of it, assembling the “family” himself and getting his main character to forego the firearms he hunted with for the spear his ancestors used. Still, staged or not, you watch real Eskimos building a real igloo and tell me you’re not watching reality.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Buster Keaton is the master of full-on, belly-laugh-inspiring hilarity. His brand of comedy is visceral and intensely physical, and this comedy of antebellum life and Southern manners is one of his best films. This is one of those movies where, rather than pick a favorite part, one might be more inspired to make a top ten list of the funniest scenes, and then still feel like too many great moments were left out. To see Buster Keaton in action is to wonder what real point there might be to adding sound to the movies.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Douglas Fairbanks was the first great swashbuckling action star, and this is surely one of the greatest adventure films of all time, tailor-made for his robust athleticism and sense of whimsy and fun. The scale of the thing beggars the imagination, and I know of no clearer example that demonstrates how film had matured from the previous decade. The giant, opulent sets dwarf the actors, and Fairbanks seems to have refused to allow anything to limit his vision, no matter how fantastical. The result is two and a half hours positively packed with battles, acrobatics, monsters, and magic.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I think it seems a bit odd to a post-Andrew Lloyd Webber generation to imagine a silent film version of this story. But the story, of course, comes from a novel, which is equally devoid of the “sound of music” (as it were). The 1925 version, strikingly faithful to the original, brings the story brilliantly to life thanks to smart use of atmospheric locations, an excellent score (including some well-timed opera singing), and especially Lon Chaney’s incredible, iconic make-up. The real stand-out scene (among many memorable moments) is the masquerade, filmed in color, with the opera ghost’s eye-popping costume. Wow.

The Black Pirate (1926)

Speaking of early technicolor, I really have a strong association in my mind between silent film and black-and-white, as I think most people do. So it’s decidedly weird to watch a silent color film. This one is another Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, in which he plays the victim of pirates who swears revenge and accomplishes it by becoming a pirate himself. It’s high adventure on the high seas, and all that, and I can only imagine that the novelty of it played quite well, but I can’t say I found it terribly engaging otherwise.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

It’s hard to describe the experience of hearing Al Jolson speak the first words in a major feature film after having watched over a dozen silent films in a row. Certainly it can’t begin to match what it must have been like in 1927 to hear speech suddenly burst forth from the mouth of a moving picture, but it does give an inkling of how heart-stopping the effect must have been for audiences at the time. The story is maudlin, but it plays, and I love that it is a silent film except for when Jolson’s character sings, as though he is only really able to express and make himself heard through music.

The Crowd (1928)

Of course, sound didn’t just sweep through American cinema overnight, and my 1928 film is another silent classic. When asked decades later why there were not more movies about ordinary people, Jean Luc Godard replied, “Why remake The Crowd?” It’s not hard to see how this could be regarded as the definitive film about ordinary, anonymous existence amid the faceless masses of modern metropolitan life. I watched this film sandwiched between two fairly melodramatic musicals which, for all their use of sound, can’t touch the basic humanity of this story. And it was hard not to notice the extreme mobility of Vidor’s camera in contrast to the point-and-shoot of the early talkies.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I wrote more extensively about this film here. Suffice to say that it was interesting as the first film of its kind, as a curious choice for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and in short, as a cultural artifact, with all of the dusty entombment that label implies. There’s just not a lot here for contemporary audiences to enjoy, but it’s clear why it was successful in its day. This is a great jumping-off point for a train of thought about what makes a classic endure, and what sorts of popular films are destined to be just a flash in the pan.

Time to hit the Threadbare Thirties!


~ by Jared on September 15, 2012.

One Response to “Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1920s”

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